Your Experience is a Gift

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Paul from Cape Town - "What if all your anxiety, your fear, your doubt... Just one pill... It could disappear?"

It’s at this moment I should don my leather jacket, put on my sunglasses and say in my Matrix voice “What if? What if I told you that this world that you see before your eyes could change with a pill? What if all your anxiety, your fear, your doubt... Just one pill... It could disappear?"

via Paul Watson
Cape Town, South Africa

The first time I met him was at an orgy.

It wasn’t one of those romantic moments from Cosmopolitan magazine. Nor was it one of those love story moments that make you feel like a sociopath for not ever having been in one of those hazy coffee shop situations …. but, we recognized each other.

He was naked, sweat glistening on his body, and when he got up, his cock seemed to be the one that wanted to shake hands.

 My clothes were off and we were soon in a tangle of arms and legs. In amongst the temptations, salty kisses and heaving men - it was his eyes that I sought out. It was his hand that held mine in the throes of passion. It was his warm hand that touched and caressed me as I lay there thinking about an escape. But I digress, a bit of background information may be required to follow the thread of this story.

I am not a handsome devil or a cherub-faced guy. I am just your normal, run-of-the-mill, everyday man. But that’s what makes me so dangerous. I smell like a man, I look like a man, I have grey streaks in my beard and tiny laugh lines at the outer corners of my eyes. I have a wry smile and a naughty glint in my eyes. I can track a smile from way across a room and am very aware of any mans’ lingering gaze on my crotch. Through many years of practice my success rate is pretty high – although I don’t always get the guy.

In banks, shopping malls, gyms, out jogging, I spot them - looking. I always make the first move. A greeting, a friendly “Hello” and, once I have the slight confirmation of mutual “lust”, I swiftly move in for the kill. Like a slathering and ravenous wolf that hunts alone, I have taken singles, couples and sometimes groups.

My taste in men is real men! They range from hairy-backed bear-like men to smooth-chested accountants to beer-bellied and chain-smoking alcoholics. Married men, straight men, gay men - I don’t discriminate. Sometimes I string them along if the sex is good but, often, it’s a once off mutual understanding of lust and release. To have sex with a man is an all-encompassing and overpowering urge. An urge that is so great that it overshadows all else and, like a scalding knife that cuts into your brain, short circuiting all thoughts other than the one goal – to get one thing. SEX!

"This isn’t me," I hear you cry, "I do not have urges like that."

I cannot relate. Being gay in the 1980’s until the present day has had some very interesting parallels. Where once I was ashamed and hid my sexuality for fear of rejection. I now find that, even though I am an openly gay man, I still have a largely hidden private life.

In my twenties, my boyfriend at that time introduced me to a man who would sit at the end of the local gay bar with a cigarette in one hand and glass of wine in the other who would deliver a string of witty comeback remarks that had us in stitches. A few short months later we stood beside his bed in the local hospice saying our goodbyes to him. I remember his pleading eyes in a sunken face - betrayed by the disease that ravaged his body. This was a harsh early lesson learned regarding the realities of the AIDS generation and the consequences of erratic condom use. At the time, my own condom use was approximately 50%. People don’t always think in the heat of passion, they just dive on in and deal with consequences later.

Show me a man that has a 100% condom usage rate, and I will show you a politician in the making.

This experience certainly scared me enough to use a condom or to at least, limit myself to one partner at a time for a while. Like most victims of the AIDS epidemic, names and faces would just fade like some melting ice berg. Here today, gone tomorrow - and the uncaring world and life goes on.

The truth is - the world NEVER stops.

In this life, no one gets out alive … No-one.

It was after I had sex with Mr O on a number of occasions that he advised me of his HIV status. He was HIV positive. He told me as we lay together, holding on to each other as if the world were disappearing beneath our feet. I could feel him clinging on to me - almost expecting me to jump off the bed and run hysterically down the street. Inside I was screaming - I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to cry, and plead - but I was surprised by my own actions.

I kissed him instead. Mr O, with his placid nature and his understanding eyes cradled me in his arms as if protecting me from a terrifying storm. There was something even stronger than the tempest inside of me, HIV/AIDS, death … These things were part of him, a huge part. These things ruled his life and had done so for years. Would they start to rule mine as well?

After he told me, I was filled with mixed emotions. I wanted to run, I wanted to get away. It was as if I had been burnt by a flame. Things I’d read in magazines, information spread by the media and things that friends and acquaintances had said swirled around in my head. I wished them gone - this HIV thing had become too real. Even language and means of communication has changed, we whisper in each others’ ears “Are you clean?”. These words contain so much negative stigma that this disease has spread. We say it as though someone with HIV is dirty, an unclean and unholy thing.

When I left him - I ran. I ran to be tested. 

It had been three years since my last test and I’d liaised with about 150 men during that time. Who bothers to count, it’s just a recreational pastime. During the process of thinking about, planning and being tested I comforted myself in the one way I knew would soothe my soul, even if just for a short while. Sex! As my phone chimed and the hook up was set I buried all thoughts of HIV and tried to lose myself in someone else. My next partner was married. The sex wasn’t messy, it just wasn’t completely safe. Empty promises of repeat performances were exchanged. As soon as he was out of the door, the guilt set in.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. What IF? Loads of what IFS ….

 The anger, the frustration, the self-hate. My composure and my masks sliding, one by one. I decided the very next day to make the decision to be tested and to stick with it.

I really don’t want to be like some of my friends. They never sleep with anyone, they stay at home and watch movies and seem to mourn their lost love life. The fear of getting the disease has over-powered them, rendered theme petrified and they sit in complete misery and isolation. They have this burning desire and need for love but the fear just keeps them from ever making a connection.

Condom use is not always the norm and there are other ways the disease can be transmitted.

There are so many people with a burning loathe of the virus that shun people at the mere mention of HIV. I can say this with real conviction as I, myself, used to be that person.

I believe that it’s the fear of the unknown that has paralysed these people. It’s the fear of their own tenuous mortality. These very same people attend Gay Pride marches, waving banners of equality for all “Stop Homophobia” they say. Away from the marches and public displays of solidarity, a few short acronyms such as HIV and AIDS has them turning their backs on their brothers. It’s a new strain of virus called Inter-Homophobia. It’s rotting gay society from the inside! It’s not AIDS or HIV, but the stigma attached that is slowly eating away and slowly poisoning people. It’s not the people that have disclosed their status - it’s those that haven’t. They are the ones to watch out for.

I’ve heard it said that there are five statuses now - Positive, Negative, Undetectable, PrEP and, the most dangerous, Unknown.

I understand the term “bug chasers” now. I understand those just wanting to just get it and deal with it, get it over and done with so that the fear is eradicated. I really understand now because maybe I was one of them in another life.

I sat there at the Nurses station, the fear of God inside me. Scenarios were formulating in my mind, plans for a short future. Who would I tell? It happened like a blur, I remember watching the nurse’s mouth moving and the drone of noise in the background. I went through the motions. I produced my finger and, with a click, a drop of bright red blood oozed from the pin prick hole. Just one drop! I looked at it quizzically and realized that it could change my life forever. As I gently dabbed it on the testing kit my eyes blurred. From being a well composed, polite and “fun” person I melted into an anguished and totally terrified man. A thought formed in my mind. Why put yourself through such trauma - just bury it. Stick it in that hole - sex could cover it all up. Two drops from an eyedropper and I could swear the sound of those drops hitting the kit was like two deafening drum beats. The nurse jabbered on. I remember her saying that she would open the clinic when someone approached her after hours to be tested as she knows how difficult it is to take that first step to get tested. The pink line moved forward. I held my breath and slowly released it through clenched teeth. The nurse jabbered on. The plastic skeleton in her office seemed to grin knowingly at me.

When she said the word “Negative” - the first word that left my mouth was a barked shout of “What?“

The feeling of total disbelief was palpable. I sat there in a state of cataclysmic shock. She had said “Negative” - there had to be a mistake. I had been with hundreds of men, some I had used condoms with, some I hadn’t. Some I had had vanilla sex with but, with most men, I’d done things that would have livened up a porn movie.

A friend told me that although the media has led us to believe that HIV is some highly virulent, highly contagious disease, you only have a 30% chance of getting it from a direct hit. Let me repeat that - 30%. But that is just one side of the coin.

Scratch around on the Internet and you’ll be consumed by a quagmire of total confusion.

 Nothing in the medical history of mankind that has scientists and medical people more confused that this little virus. Even rumors of re-infection have divided camps. When you get flu can you get it again? So while people die, and people lie, Scientists fight and endless pages of garbage is written. And, the virus survives, it mutates, and it hides behind the smiles of those you least suspect.

I left nurse’s office like a Zombie. All my formulated plans of seeking help and starting a course on ARV’s all flew out of the window. The one thing that scared me the most though was how I would face Mr O?

Two positives don’t make a right, but we had been having unprotected sex together, he had disclosed he was on ARV’s but this still didn’t make it any easier. Could I avoid sex with him? Why can’t I just move on? Why can’t I start trying to use condoms more often and maybe change my ways? I had just dodged a bullet ,more like machine gun fire but maybe that’s been a bit dramatic. I think it was more along the lines of a nuclear strike.

When it came to our encounter, I just let go, no drugs, no thoughts, I just let go and let him take me. He knew there was something happening, this inner battle raging, and he did what he needed. He was just there. Thank god for Google, statistics, stories, blogs, it’s all there. Scientific papers, for, against .It’s all there, way too much of everything, to many contradictions, too much information.

One website said 1 in 72 chance of getting infected with HIV if you sleep with a HIV guy on ARV’s. Another website said zero chance, it is now known as the NEW way to have bareback sex and be safe, Find a guy on ARVs as he is safer to be with than anyone else. Who did I believe, I was back in the darkness, groping around for answers. All this information, all this knowledge who would I believe?

I remember the feeling of sorrow, it was like losing a part of myself, like when you were small and get lost in the mall, that helpless feeling. I don’t love the guy. I like him, yes, but he was still dangerous. And I like dangerous. So maybe it’s like playing with a tiger or some volatile bomb, that any moment it can turn on you and obliterate you.

Run my mind said, stay and play said my heart, compassion over powering my self-preservation.

I tested negative again. A smaller part of me was disappointed and this new feeling started to creep in. Hope. Yes maybe hope. Been a while since I rolled the taste of hope around in my mouth. All those jaundiced thoughts, prejudices and misconceptions seemed to bubble to the surface.

So we talked, ARVs , CD4 counts and all those other AIDS/HIV keywords. We don’t talk about them, we don’t talk about this disease. It’s something other people get. The promiscuous, the drug user, the ones who sleep with other races.

On TV we see endless streams of African people, emaciated, dying on hospital beds. We see gay men crying over their partners that they lost from blood transfusions. I can’t relate, I won’t relate, it doesn’t get to me. Tom Hank crawling on the floor, sunken cheeked Drag queens at Pride marches .The face of aids via the media has led us to believe that we can see it. Yellow sallow skin, weak limbs and gaunt haunted eyes.

So when Mr Right comes along, barrel chest brimming with health and a twinkle in his eyes, you won’t see it coming, you won’t see that little virus slip into your blood steam as you orgasm in pleasure, and that is what made ME so dangerous.

It’s at this moment I should don my leather jacket, put on my sunglasses and say in my Matrix voice “What if? What if I told you that this world that you see before your eyes could change with a pill? What if all your anxiety, your fear, your doubt... Just one pill... It could disappear?"

PrEP – Truvada , call it what you want. It’s a relatively new drug, highly controversial, but it’s here. Studies say up to 80 % chance of blocking the HIV virus, others say 100 % .It’s now used in treating people who have had exposure to the HIV virus after a 72 hour window. But still people have approached it with caution.

Take one pill a day and you’re protected.

I am amazed, here is another protection mechanism, surely sexually active people should be bashing down doors to get it. Not at all. I heard about this from Mr O. A passing mention, nothing concrete. I am high risk. You might not be, but if you sleep with me in a moment of “weakness” you are now that high risk. We are human, and sometimes what our friends and families don’t know can harm us.

For the first time in years, here is something other than a condom that can prevent HIV infection. Use the two together and you could almost swim in HIV body fluids and still be safe (ok maybe not really, but it was a thought). So if you are sexually active, even if you are married, and negative. Why are you not on this drug? Side effects, contraindications I hear you say. Better than getting HIV( Although it’s now highly treatable ), stop the pill if your body can’t handle it. Mild gastro, and maybe kidney problems.

But what is this fear about taking a pill to halt HIV. Moral decay? Bare backing, flesh on flesh in the streets, the fall of society? This idealistic way of holding onto something that allows one to hate without consequences?

Sex, just like death, happens. Sometimes its messy, sometimes you trip and slip and fall down the steps and in a tangle and land up in someone’s arms. It’s not going away, it’s not going to disappear because you don’t have it, and it’s there. It’s happening.

Sex happens, and if it’s happening to you, you should be taking this pill.

Where once I would not even want to meet, let alone date or sleep with someone who was openly HIV, now it doesn’t matter. My eyes are open. What matters is the person, not the virus. Imagine if someone would not even want to talk to you because your blood type. That’s what many gay people are like. Just the mention of the word and they are gone.

I remember laying there in Mr O’s arms, the room smelling of sex and sweat. The soft light of dawn peeking through the windows and the sounds of chirping birds welcoming a new day. Mr O’s breath was hot on my neck and I could feel the scratch of his chest hair on my back, he involuntary squeezed me , breathing in and sighed. A lazy thought floated across my mind like a soft cloud, could this be it? I won’t say the word in case I jinx things, but that moment seemed to stretch like an elastic band.

Had taking a pill changed me so quickly and so much that I was now free to enjoy who I wanted? Am I truly free now to love who I want and how I want?

Might he is the one that would make me want to be with one man? Maybe, and in that though I closed my eyes, breathed in the smell of his musky sweat and wrapped his rumbling breath around me like a blanket.

So take the fucking pill. Yes take it.

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